How WNY college counselors work together to support each other

Sep 11, 2019

College campus counseling centers are working together across Western New York to better serve their student population’s mental health needs. In this series, WBFO’s Nick Lippa reports on a community of mental health professionals that are planning how to best use their limited amount of resources.

UB Counseling Services Director Sharon Mitchell seems to be getting busier and busier. Last year there was a 10% increase in the number of students seeking services at UB. Over the past two, there’s been a 27% increase. Mitchell has been there for 16 years. Since then, there’s been a steady uptick and the size of their staff has increased.

GCC's counseling room
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO News

“Year after year we see more students each year. So that presents a challenge in terms of resources. And then a lot of our students are coming in feeling very stressed and anxious about academics but other things as well. And then depression and relationship concerns are pretty common as well,” Mitchell said. 

“When I first started, there were eight counselors on staff. Now there’s 20.” 

And that’s been the case for just about every college in Western New York.  At Medaille, Counseling Services Director Rosalina Rizzo said the challenge is always going to be to meet demand.

“Some of my colleagues you build it and they shall come, kind of theory around that,” Rizzo said.

She speaks with those colleagues at a monthly meeting to act as a support for each other and talk about current trends. Some of those colleges include UB, Buffalo State, Villa Maria, Hilbert, Niagara, and ECC. 

“We go to trainings together. We look for ways to manage the demand and being able to get the best services to the students. And that may not mean that everybody gets seen for 30 sessions a year,” Rizzo said.

GCC Assistant Dean for Student Services Monica Romeo and Dean of Students Patty Chaya
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO News

Rizzo is concerned many schools have limits with how many times a student can be seen in a semester. 

“At this point we’ve been able to avoid have having session limits (at Medaille),” she said. “I don’t know how long that may last. A lot depends on the demand. We only have two full time clinicians in the center. And that includes myself.”

At Genesee Community College, a campus of just under 6,000 with six campuses across four counties, they have one full time counselor. Like many other colleges in the area, Assistant Dean for Student Services Monica Romeo said they rely on interns from different surrounding schools who are in training and masters levels programs. 

“It’s helpful to us, but it does at the same time take some time from the direct clinical work we do because it does take a lot to supervise students,” Romeo said. 

Romeo said the counselors that meet monthly now started out as a small colleges group before growing into the large, supportive collective it is today.

“If there was an issue on campus, where we needed support an extra counselors, we could reach out to the other colleges to come in and help us. Same thing, if Canisius reached out to us today and said we had a death on campus we need extra counselors. If we could, we would send some of our staff there to help out,” Romeo said.

Medaille's counseling room
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO News

Mitchell, who also happens to be President of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, said it was a bit funny she wasn’t invited to the group originally.

“And I was like, ‘How come I can’t come?’ And they said, ‘Oh well UB is such a big school, we didn’t think you’d be interested.’ And I was like, ‘But I’m the only person on my campus who does what I do. So I need the same kinds of support that you need.’ So it really is a place for us to talk about trends, like what are you seeing on your campus, are you doing anything new that you are particularly proud of. It really allows us to sort of swap ideas and support each other. That’s been a big part of my own mental health in doing my job is having that type of support,” she said. 

Now it’s a resource that offers perspective everyone involved couldn’t get anywhere else.

“Because every campus is different. And so for some schools, they may be talking about their non-traditional first generation students. And we certainly have those at UB. But it really made me look at, who should I be looking at on our campus? Who are we underserving? Who doesn’t readily walk through the door? And so I’m able to talk now about all the things we do for international students. But we didn’t have that. So being able to build that in and even hire specialists who could work with our international students and being thoughtful and strategic about what do I want to do. Even if the issues wasn’t exactly the same, it did make me think about who our marginalized populations are and who might be in need of more support than they are getting right now,” said Mitchell.